Thursday, May 21, 2009

I-35W Congestion Reduction Project Shows Minnesotans Up to Stimulus Challenge

“Nothing focuses the mind like a deadline.” The architects of the Obama Administration stimulus funding package have a lot riding on that old adage.

The Administration, desperate to create jobs as soon as possible, is distributing billions of dollars in a hurry. It needs to quickly and efficiently jump-start projects to create jobs in the short run, and improve the fundamentals of the economy over the long-run.

So, the Obama Administration is holding a series of competitions to gather the best ideas for investing the stimulus funding. For instance, a number of regions are entering a competition for high-speed rail projects. A number of business coalitions are assembling their best ideas for building a “smart grid” system that will carry solar, wind and other alternative forms of energy to population centers.

The federal stimulus initiative and the earlier USDOT congestion reduction competition have many similarities. Both brought competitive pressure to bear to stimulate big thinking. Both set very ambitious goals. Both focused on problems limiting long-term economic growth. Both demanded that proposals be planned, assembled, reviewed and awarded in weeks or months rather than years. Both required that huge, complex projects be constructed in strict timetables.

I can’t blame taxpayers for wondering whether policymakers working at a breakneck speed will get it right. But based on what I have seen, I believe these truncated ideation competitions not only can work, they might actually be preferable to business-as-usual.

Witness Minnesota’s experience two year’s ago when the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) offered a one-time $1.1 billion pool of funding to urban areas that brought forth the most inventive and productive ideas for reducing the intractable problem of urban traffic congestion.

To be sure, the congestion reduction project competition was not policymaking-as-usual. After all, transportation projects often take a decade or more to be prioritized, assembled, reviewed, vetted, awarded, re-vetted and built. Innovation, boldness and speed are not always the hallmarks of this interminable process. And getting various interests united and integrated has never been a quick or certain endeavor.

But the time-limited USDOT competition shook things up. In Minnesota, the demanding rules of the competitive process stimulated unprecedented collaboration, speed, efficiency and innovation.

On the collaboration and speed front, stakeholder workshops were immediately convened, bringing together bipartisan politicians, planners, businesses, highway advocates, transit champions, trucking representatives and environmental leaders. Facing pressing deadlines, the groups quickly identified common ground, and united behind Minnesota’s entry into the USDOT competition, a bold proposal for reducing congestion on I-35W between Burnsville and downtown Minneapolis.

On the efficiency front, the planning and design work for the I-35W proposal was completed in record time. The authorizing legislation passed the Legislature with bipartisan support within the tight federal deadlines. And it currently looks like the ultra-fast tracked I-35W project will be completed on time and on budget.

On the innovation front, Minnesota’s proposal wowed national reviewers. For instance, the proposal contains the most comprehensive and thoughtful telecommuting initiative our region has ever undertaken. It also features a bold new approach to more efficiently move buses in and out of downtown Minneapolis, a traditionally troublesome transit bottleneck.

Finally, Minnesota’s entry into the national competition contained a first-of-its-kind initiative to allow solo drivers to use fortified highway shoulders, if they pay a fee. The use of electronically collected “congestion fees” that vary according to congestion levels assures that transit users, carpoolers, and a limited number of toll payers will be able to travel at average speeds of 50 mph or more on the express lane, even during rush hour.

The new I-35W pricing system will be similar to the approach used on the I-394 MnPASS lanes, which has increased traffic throughput by hundreds of cars per day. Surveys have found that a large majority of I-394 travelers of all income levels think these MnPASS lanes are a good idea.

All told, the Minnesota proposal delivered more and better commuting options, and allowed us to get more bang from our transportation buck. USDOT reviewers were impressed. Of the 26 competitive entries from around the nation, the Twin Cities was one of only five metro areas to win federal funding.

The USDOT competition proved to me that Minnesota leaders can act quickly, when required. We can be competitive, collaborative, bold and comprehensive, when necessary. We can smooth over past differences to build bipartisan, multi-sector and multi-agency partnerships, when deadlines and competitive pressures don’t allow us the luxury of posturing and drama.

In short, the USDOT congestion reduction competition was living proof that nothing focuses the mind like a deadline. Here’s hoping Minnesota and national leaders remember these lessons as they compete in the coming months for the right to rebuild our economy.

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